A wide-roaming and personal meditation on Dürer and his art

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A wide-roaming and personal meditation on Dürer and his art
"Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World" by Philip Hoare. Illustrated. 296 pages. Pegasus Books. $28.95.

by John Williams

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Philip Hoare began his career writing books about subjects like Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde. He has become a much stranger, singular thing: an obsessive chronicler of the sea, and specifically of whales. Beginning with “Leviathan or, The Whale” (2008), Hoare wrote three consecutive books — all personal, allusive and circuitous — about the ocean and its inhabitants.

His new book, “Albert and the Whale,” combines his interests. It’s a summary-defying blend of art history, biography, nature writing and memoir.

The book’s central figure — the one from which Hoare’s centrifugal energies radiate — is German artist Albrecht Dürer. The book’s marine angle, initially anyway, is a beached whale that Dürer traveled to see but never saw; perfectly indicative of the strange, seemingly spare ingredients that Hoare likes to turn into feasts. In Dürer’s time, whales “presented a great challenge and allure” to artists, because “they were so difficult to comprehend. Like God, no one could agree what they really looked like, or what they might be capable of.”

Dürer was born in 1471, in Nuremberg, and Hoare takes us there: “Wolves prowled the city walls. Skeletons of executed robbers hung in bony avenues to discourage other offenders. The same roads brought rats carrying fleas bearing the plague. In the forests, darkness held sway.” Yes, rats and darkness, but it was also an important city, full of publishing and science, and it gave Dürer a “global view.”

As a titan of the Renaissance, Dürer needs no puffing up, but Hoare doesn’t stint on the claims: “No one painted dirt before Dürer,” is a particularly arresting example. He created “the first self-portrait of an artist painted for its own sake.” In a later self-portrait, he is “where the modern world begins. That stare, that self, that star.” He became “the first genuinely international artist,” and his engraving “Melencolia I” is “the most analyzed object in the history of art,” a great cipher of a piece that at less than 10 by 8 inches created “a new existential state.”

The breadth of the artist’s work made room for the most granular natural detail and the most hallucinatory fantasy. He was working at a time when reality was asserting itself in new ways, not long before Copernicus and Galileo astonished but also disillusioned us. As Dürer drew dragons, he was also “vanquishing these beasts, sending them into extinction,” Hoare writes. “Before Dürer, dragons existed; after him, they did not.”

Hoare writes with the license of the nonexpert; you can feel the delight he takes in being unbound by anything but his enthusiasms. He is alternately precise and concealing. His biographical sections are both elliptical and redolent of entire lives. His art criticism is often stirring. He writes that Dürer’s lavishly colorful and tactile painting of a bird’s wing turned “sacred something that might have been the aftermath of a hunt, torn off by a dog’s jaws. He set feathers and dandelions on a par with emperors and saints. He painted God in dirt and blood.” That painting and others are included in a collection of color plates near the end of the book; many other black-and-white illustrations are dispersed throughout, for a wide diversity of purposes.

Another of the author’s pivots might predict whether you find his approach enchanting or somewhat dizzying: For about 60 pages near its middle, the book becomes a group literary biography, primarily of novelist Thomas Mann and poet Marianne Moore. We see Moore and her mother living together in Greenwich Village “like anchorites.” We are in Virginia for a series of three lectures on the sea given by Auden in 1949. This extended section is certainly connected to Dürer: Moore and Mann both referenced him in their own work; Auden considered him in the lectures. But it requires you to stretch along with Hoare.

One of his methods is to quickly hop across historical lily pads: In the span of three pages, art historian Erwin Panofsky publishes his biography of Dürer in 1943; his son Wolfgang Panofsky is recruited to the Manhattan Project the same year; Wolfgang observes the Trinity test in New Mexico and mentions making sketches of the explosion; then we’re 500 years earlier, and Dürer is awaking from a dream “in which he saw great deluges fall from the sky.” The next morning, the artist wrote of the dream image: “It fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring.” He painted it, “as I had seen it”; not terribly dissimilar from a nuclear mushroom cloud.

Somehow, Hoare’s frequent cuts between the present, the recent(ish) past and more distant history end up feeling like no cuts at all; instead of whiplash or disorientation, what results is an almost calm feeling of all these times existing simultaneously, in the moment of reading.

If Hoare’s overall tone is self-serious, he allows glimpses of the ridiculousness that can come with fixation. Museum guards need to tell him to stand back from paintings lest he trip security alarms. He opts for a localized anesthetic during a surgery, and while the doctors are working he begins talking to them about … whales.

That surgery is part of the book’s final sections, which become more intimately memoiristic. The operation was undergone to correct Dupuytren’s contracture, a condition that causes fingers to curl in toward the palm. Hoare being Hoare, before he gets us to the operating room he spends a few pages sketching the life of the Parisian doctor whose name was given to the condition, and then mulling some historical representations of it.

Near the end, he writes movingly of his mother’s death and of Dürer’s final, honest self-portrait, when the artist was far beyond the intense, confident beauty of the earlier paintings.

This book requires patience, and a mild tolerance for passing clouds of pretension or obscurity; but these hazards are just residual effects from the forceful weather system that is Hoare’s imagination. He almost inevitably begins writing at one point about W.G. Sebald, a kindred spirit whom he came to know. Hoare’s recap of Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” is the summary of one digressive book nested inside another. Hoare says that book “pulls you in like the tide.” And if you just get in far enough, so does this one.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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